Saturday, December 19, 2015

Best and Worst Books I Read in 2015

So far, as of 19 December 2015, I've read 74 books and 18,615 pages this year and will certainly complete at least one and possibly two more books before the end of the year. That's fewer books and pages than in any of the past 3 years. But, of the books I read, I rated 17 of them as 5-star and no book gets that in my personal rating system unless I found it really, really good. Just as in 2014, I find it almost impossible to rank these books. The Johnstown Flood was probably my favourite book of 2015, but The Germans in Normandy and Chief Joseph… and The Reason for God are only nano-fractions below it. There were also a lot of books that I rated 4-star and I would unreservedly recommend any of them as well — the 17 were just the cream of the crop.

The Awful Books were precisely that. I endured to the end but could not recommend them. There is actually one other book on my Awful list but I have personal reasons for not including it here. The more I read, the more I am finding that self-published books almost always fall way lower in my ratings than others. A major problem is the lack of a tough, honest editor (or simply the lack of an editor at all). The exception to that in my 2015 Awful Books list is the book of short stories by Flannery O'Connor — it was certainly published with the help of an editor (though how willing O'Connor was to allow changes might be up for question) and by a major publisher. I just plain didn't like the book.

OUTSTANDING BOOKS READ IN 2015 (all 5 Stars)
[The longer reviews are books that I read as review copies and for which I wrote reviews for the publisher.]

Don’t All Religions Lead to God: Navigating the Multi-Faith Maze, Michael Green — Concise apology for Christianity as the only "religion" that is valid. He tackles the question of whether sincerity is enough, the differences in religious systems, the various views of God and how man can relate to God, the uniqueness of Jesus, the problem of wickedness, eternity, Jesus' presence with his followers, dealing with objections, and the appropriate response to Jesus. Green doesn't get overly complicated. He is a bit unorthodox in his view of hell as destruction rather than eternal torment, the fate of those who have never heard of Jesus, and possibly his view of the Trinity as modalism rather than 3 distinct persons. He also seems not to account for the failings of Christians — the Crusades, justifying slavery. I like his characterization of Christianity as 3 "Rs" — revelation, rescue, and relationship. I think the book is well worth reading as an introduction to or refesher for apologetics.

The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis — I actually started with my rating as 4 stars. But the more I thought about the book, the better it became. The Great Divorce is an allegory. All allegories, just like all illustrations and analogies, fall short at some point of the full truth and the reader must be very careful not to develop his or her theology or worldview from an allegory. That doesn't take away from the value of a well-written allegory, one simply must be careful not to take it literally.

The Great Divorce is Lewis' attempt to counter universalism and the tendency in his day to "marry" heaven and hell and he uses an allegory — a dream of catching a bus to heaven with other travellers, all of whom must decide if they will accept God's grace and stay in heaven or return to Hell. He declares that they are different and distinct from each other. Some commentators have declared that this allegory is Lewis' declaration that Hell is locked from the inside and, thus, those in hell have a chance to escape. I think that carries the allegory to places that Lewis never intended. He does talk about grace and forgiveness and acceptance and trust.

The allegory does seem to say that one is only fully human when one is commited to faith in God. The concept of time in this allegory is very dreamlike — it exists but it doesn't. See, for example, the section beginning at about location 652, where George MacDonald explains eternity to the dreamer.

I felt both sadness and joyful hope while reading the book — sometimes at the same time. There was sadness at the blindness and stubbornness of those who chose to return to the town. There was hope held out to all — they simply had to accept. There was joy promised to all who might choose to stay.

There are some great, thought-provoking quotes in the book, especially the Introduction:
  • There is no heaven with a little of hell in it — no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather. (quoting George MacDonald, loc. 4)
  • Evil can be undone, but it cannot 'develop' into good. (@loc. 38)
  • If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most initimate souvenirs of Hell. (@loc. 52)
  • Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself. (@loc. 58)

The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make, Hans Finzel — I just finished this a second time and it's just as good as a repeat. I think my favourite chapter is #10 — a leader looks to the future. A couple of the mistakes that I need to pay close attention to are "peoplework before paperwork" and "communication." This edition is an update of the original book written in the 1990s. He discusses the problems caused by these top ten mistakes and then talks about how to avoid them. Easily one of the most readable leadership books that I have read. Part of its value is that it’s drawn from Finzel’s experiences in leadership.

The Johnstown Flood, David McCullough — This was a powerful book about an unimaginable event. I've liked everything that I've read by David McCullough (Truman 4-stars, John Adams 5-stars, 1776 5-stars) and this did not disappoint. Even if you don't know the history, it's clear that this book is about an awful flood and the flood is the main character and he develops that character well. While McCullough doesn't develop human characters to any depth — that wasn't his purpose — he does skillfully weave together the stories is both survivors and deceased. Without being morbid, he managed to stir up emotions of sympathy, anger, and admiration — sympathy for those who lost loved ones, even whole families; anger at the intransigence of the "club" management to do a thorough evaluation of the dam and hiring an incompetent non-engineer to repair it; admiration at the resilience of the townspeople during and after the flood and for the way the nation rallied around the valley to go help and to send help. I also felt like I was there — I don't mean to be trite and realize that what I felt was way, way short of actually being there, yet, my heart was pounding at times as townspeople attempted to escape and as others watched the destruction. Good book (and not as long as it appeared to be because there is an extensive bibliography and index).

God’s Story in 66 Verses: Understanding the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book, Stan Guthrie — Great idea and execution. Guthrie makes a rather outrageous and bodacious claim in the subtitle, Understand the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book, but has succeeded in his goal by choosing a key verse from each book of the Bible, one that captures the core message of the book. Then he gives a 2-3 page overview of each book. He has managed to capture the message of the Bible clearly.

This is an excellent overview and would be a good introduction for a new believer or for anyone who is not familiar with the Bible. It's also a good reminder for mature believers and helpful in pointing out the key themes — something that can be difficult if one gets caught up in the details of each book. Mind you, the details are important, but this book helps one to step back and see the whole of each book before digging into the details. For my first time through the book, I read 2-4 chapters per day as a part of my personal devotions and it was helpful. However, I think a better us of the book is to use this as one reads through the Bible — getting an overview and then memorizing each key verse while reading that particular book of the Bible.

The Sentinels of Andersonville, Tracy Groot — Andersonville Prison, Americus, GA — at least 45,000 Union soldiers passed through the prison in 14 months and at least 13,000 of them died, mostly from starvation and exposure. In the final chapter, Groot, through Emery, makes a point to say that Union prisons were sometimes no better or, as she says, "gave Andersonville a run for its money." Though a novel, it's surely built on fact — this is the first book I've read on the Andersonville Prison, so I can't comment on the accuracy of the historical content. Wirtz and Winder were, apparently, very real Confederate officers in charge of Andersonville who did nothing to improve the sorry conditions of Andersonville and likely actively interfered with civilian attempts to provide food for the prisoners.

Violet, the daughter of a local doctor, joins forces with a prison guard, Dance, and an Alabama militiaman, Emery, to form the Friends of Andersonville society to try to wake up Americus to do something. Not only did they fail to waken more than a few, they were looked on by many, both military and civilian, as Yankee sympathizers and traitors. Emery has made a vow to Lew, a Yankee prisoner, that he will get him out — interesting twist on how that is attempted. While perhaps not the best example of high-quality writing, Groot brings her characters to life and gives excellent descriptions of the conditions of prisoners in Andersonville.

Killing Jesus, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard — Not a theological/doctrinal study of the life of Jesus but an historical study. I thought it was very well done. The authors used multiple sources, not relying strictly on the 4 gospels in the Bible. They made an honest attempt to sort out dates and sequences of events. In order to put Jesus' life in context, they gave a background of the Roman Empire. They did fill in some blanks on conversations, but all seemed in keeping with the biblical record. The book ends with Jesus' crucifixion, burial, and the disappearance of his body. Those expecting a theological/doctrinal approach will be disappointed and, perhaps, disturbed by that, but their purpose was to examine the historical record that was reasonably verifiable. I would recommend this as background reading for teachers and students of the Bible as well as for agnostics.

Serving God in Today’s Cities: Facing the Challenge of Urbanization, Patrick Johnstone and Dean Merritt — The thing I really liked about this book was the 8-part urban strategy. Johnstone doesn't lay out details but a series of facets that he says must be incorporated into any strategy for a 21st century urban setting — and I think he's right on target.

Angels of the Appalachians, Deanna Edens — Not what I expected from this book. I expected stories, but it is a delightful biography-memoir of Erma and Ida, unlikely lifelong friends from the time that Erma and her mother and brother left the coal mining camp and ended up at Mrs. Jones' farm. Annie, the narrator, is a doctoral student of Ida's and becomes a friend of Erma. Angels of the Appalachians gives a compelling picture of life in the W Virginia Appalachians in the first half of the 20th century.

The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien — My umpteenth time to read this classic and it never fails to entertain. An unadventuresome hobbit sets out on an adventure with a group of dwarves and a wizard to reclaim an under-the-mountain kingdom and recover lost treasure. On the journey, the hobbit discovers he's made of sterner stuff than he or anyone else imagined. The dwarves, on the other hand, discover the corrupting power of wealth. My favourite quote from the book: Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you, but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all! (Gandalf to Bilbo at the very end of the book.)

Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, Kent Nerburn — Narrative history of the Nez Perce tribe of Idaho and their betrayal by white America that resulted in hundreds of miles of flight, accusations of barbarism, and the loss of their homelands. Debunks the myths surrounding Chief Joseph, putting his contribution in a true historical context. Left me very sad at the treatment of minority groups by majority groups.

The Germans in Normandy, Richard HargreavesThe story of the struggle for Normandy is an appalling one; the battle was, in Erwin Rommel's words, 'one terrible blood-letting'. (from the Introduction) Both the Allied and German forces put most, if not all of their hope for ending World War II on the attempt by the Allies to free occupied France.

Hargreaves does a masterful job of writing the history of D-Day to the final liberation of France from the German perspective. He talks about the logical hopelessness of the German defense, yet portrays the sheer will-power of the German military that, at times, threatened to thwart to Allied invasion. Germany missed its opportunity in so many ways — megalogmaniacal leadership of Hitler and Goebbels who refused to face the reality of the Allied superiority and the complete exhaustion of their own troops, uncoordinated strategies, woefully insufficient front line and reserve forces, inadequate hardware (or, as Hargreaves terms it, "material"). Though Hargreaves doesn't explicitly make the connection, the attempted coup by top military leadership in the midst of the defense of France had to have been, at the very least, a distraction.

Hargreaves succeeds in portraying the tenacity of the German military as time after time they were defeated but continued to fight on in spite of overwhelming odds. It's terrifying to think what might have happened if the German military had been anywhere close to being as prepared as were the Allies.

Whether Hargreaves intended it or not, one result of reading this book is a fresh realization of how horrible war is — 240,000 or more people killed in a 2 1/2 month period and many of the bodies so damaged that they could not be identified!!

I do have some criticisms of the book.
  • First was the overuse of the phrase "material supremacy". Often, this was quoted from German sources, but there could (maybe) have been some variety in how the German phrase was translated and Hargreaves, himself, could have used a different phrase when he wasn't quoting.
  • I found maps difficult to decipher — the quality of the graphics in the Kindle version was really good, but they lacked legends that would have made them more understandable to someone who, like me, has neither a military background or more than a cursory knowledge of French geography.
  • There were some minor quirky (to me) errors — for example, "The 6 June cost the Panzer Lehr thirty vehicles." Phrases that introduced quotes often ended with a period rather than a comma. Several times, a phrase like "It was gone midnight…" was used. Or, a phrase like, "Thus at the age of thirty died Michael Wittmann…" Or, "Paris not only lacked the men to defend it to the last man…" — how many more than 1 does it take to defend to the last man? Hargreaves is, apparently, British and perhaps some of these are simply differences in how Amis and Tommies (the terms the Germans used in Hargreaves book) express themselves. None of them take away from the book.

I think Hargreaves sums up the essence of Germans in Normandy with this section at location 5628 (Kindle): For the Landser, there was the bitter taste of defeat, and yet the German soldier refused to accept he had been beaten. Events had conspired against him, but the Landser held his head high. Like Untersturmführer Riegamer, he struggled to accept his sacrifices had been in vain. This could not be the end. 'German soldiers have once again acquitted themselves superhumanly in battle,' Hitlerjugend commander Kurt Meyer wrote bitterly in his diary. 'They do not deserve the terrible defeat. The defeat cannot be blamed on the frontline soldiers as this bitter cup was served to them by a gambler at the map table.'

Butterick’s Practical Typography, Matthew Butterick — An online book about typography — Practical Typography. Butterick’s goal is to make good typography accessible to the layman and I think he succeeds quite well. Clear, concise (except when he starts talking about Pollen, Racket, and Lisp or his rant about Medium in the Appendix). Good, practical, relatively easy to implement advice. Definitely opened my eyes and changed my mind about how I lay out things I write.

I appreciated Butterick’s list of good fonts versus awful fonts, but I wished he had talked about why, for instance, Avenir is better for headings than Helvetica or why Equity is better than Times New Roman. Granted, it’s likely that the number of people who care about that is pretty small.

The Complete 101 Collection, John Maxwell — This "book" contains 8 books from John Maxwell's "101 Series" — Attitude 101, Self-Improvement 101, Leadership 101, Relationships 101, Success 101, Teamwork 101, Equipping 101, and Mentoring 101. A ninth book, Ethics 101, is not included in this collection. This is a great starter set for a young leader and for an experienced leader who wants content for conversations in a mentoring relationship.

Each of these books is intended as an introduction to its topic. Don't expect to learn everything you need to know as a leader, despite the subtitle, What Every Leader Needs to Know. However, do expect to get a good introduction to the things that a good leader needs to know and do. There are numerous references to other books by Maxwell, each of which goes into greater depth on a given topic. In typical Maxwell fashion, these books have plenty of quotes from historical figures as well as some of the best current writers on leadership. There is some overlap between the subject matters of the books, so there are sections that are repeated in different ones of these books. For example, a significant minority portion of Mentoring 101 is included in Equipping 101. That's not bad because equipping leaders and mentoring leaders have similar characteristics.

I think one of the best uses of these books (or this collection) would be for an experienced leader to mentor a young leader. And, in fact, 5 of these books (Mentoring 101, Relationships 101, Equipping 101, Attitude 101, and Leadership 101) are available as a part of Maxwell's Lunch & Learn series which includes a discussion guide.

Some of the themes that run throughout all of these books are:
  • Trust
  • Loyalty
  • Choosing people based on leadership potential, not followship
  • Passing on responsibility.

While every one of these books is helpful, I thought the best sections were:
  • Leadership 101, Chapter 9, How Can I Extend My Influence
  • Teamwork 101, Chapter 2, What is the Impact of Good Teamwork, especially the section Great Teams Create Community.
  • Equipping 101, Chapter 5, What Does It Take to Equip a Leader, especially the section Check on Them Systematically when Maxwell talks about working with "a person whose progress is repeatedly poor."

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Heidi W. Durrow — Liking this book as much as I did was the surprise of 2015 — certainly in terms of books. Angels of the Appalachians was a close second.

The theme of the book was intriguing — a blue-eyed biracial girl, Rachel, ends of living with her African American grandmother after her mother and siblings die in a horrible event. For the first time in her life, she is in predominantly African American surroundings. As a 12 year old, she has never thought of herself as "black" and she doesn't know how to talk or act "black" (not intended as a racial slur, but this is one of the major themes of the book). One of her problems is that everybody around here now assumes she should act black. The major theme is her struggles to either live up to or fight against the stereotypes of race, stereotypes that are assumed by both races.

A sub-theme is her growing from childhood to adulthood. The second sub-theme is learning the truth about her family and learning how to deal with that truth. There are elements that I expected and didn't particularly care for — the sex, primarily, but it wasn't graphic. In the end, Rachel says to herself, "In [Brick's] eyes, I'm not the new girl. I'm not the color of my skin. I'm a story. One with a past and a future unwritten." She is at peace with who she is. Ms. Durrow is uniquely qualified to write this story as she is biracial and this is, in large part, her story.

The Reason for God, Timothy J. Keller — Really good. Challenged me to think through some things. I really liked the way he dealt with Kierkegaard's definition of sin. Best chapter.

Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand — Ms. Hillenbrand has written only 2 books — this one and Unbroken. But she has proven to be an almost magical writer. Just as I did in McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood and Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, I felt like I was in the story. She skillfully weaves the lives and experiences of all the characters — owner, trainer, jockey, and horse — into a coherent, compelling, easy-to-read story. Though she includes tons of details about each, the book is not tedious in the least. She uses the details in a way that enhances the story rather than bogs it down. In some ways, this is a classic underdog succeeds story, but she avoids clichés (I want so badly to add, “like the plague”).

AWFUL BOOKS READ IN 2015 (1-2 Stars)

The Speechwriter, Sid Crowe

The Wisdom of a Cobbler, Sid Crowe

The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor — I know an awful lot of very smart people who really like the stories of Flannery O’Connor. I simply didn’t like a single one. I was so lost after the first 8 stories, that I started over and reread them. I read a Cliff Notes introduction of O’Connor’s writing and while that helped, I still didn’t get her stories.

David and the Old Man, William Zemba — The biography of an overbearing, narrow-minded father and a son who rebelled against his father in rather bizarre ways. It’s told from the perspective of a younger brother, William (the author).

Run (and read) well, y'all,
Bob Allen, Kampala, Uganda


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Book Review: Churchill's Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government, Larry P. Arnn

Arnn sets out to show how Churchill saved free government. He attempts to do so using three macro-themes: War, Empire, and Peace. In each section, Arnn uses Churchill's writings and speeches to decipher his thoughts on these issues and how he influenced England and the world.

I really can't decide how I think about this biography, Churchill's Trial. It would have been better for me to have read a more traditional biography first, before tackling this political/sociological biography. I needed more background on Churchill the man before trying to understand Churchill the politician. Essentially, all I knew about Churchill was his strong leadership of England during the darkest days of World War II.

I don't think he succeeded in demonstrating that Churchill saved free government — no one person could accomplish that. He did succeed in showing how Churchill stood against intrusive, big government … mostly. And, rather than stretch history and force Churchill into a single line of politicial thought throughout his life, Arnn was willing to show how Churchill adapted to the needs of his time. While Churchill might not have been a saviour, he was certainly influential and many of his themes are echoed by conservative politicians of the early 21st century.

It seems to me that Churchill was a pragmatist — he was against socialism as an overarching political and social philosophy, but he was willing to adopt and adapt some elements of socialism because they were the right things to do. Churchill's biggest fear about socialism was that a socialist government would ultimately and inevitably insinuate itself into every nook and cranny of the life of an individual citizen and Churchill believed that the root of a strong nation was its citizens, not its government.

The best chapter was the last: Conclusion: Churchill's Trial and Ours. Arnn summarized well the things he tried to point out through the book. For me, at least, many of those things were less than clear until this point. In the second section of this chapter, Churchill's Lessons, the phrase "Churchill taught" was way overused — to the point that it was obnoxious to me. Churchill was not a teacher or master or sage in the traditional sense of those words. His teaching was through his volumnious writing.

I also appreciated the Appendices which were significant articles or essays written by Churchill. The best of those was the first, Fifty Years Hence, published in December 1931.

All in all, this is a book worth reading. Churchill was remarkably insightful about the dangers (as he saw them) of big, socialistic governments. Churchill lived and was in positions of political influence during a critical period in the history of democracies. I felt like Arnn's treatment of the themes were difficult to follow and absorb. Be prepared to read, reread, and to spend time mulling over what Arnn (and Churchill) are trying to communicate.

(DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, via their bloggers' review programme,  BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review. I receive no additional compensation except for continued participation in the programme.)